Writing and Strategy

M+R Research Labs: Talking Storytelling in Emails

Last week, M+R’s Steve Daigneault and Colin Holtz delivered a live webinar on their new paper, “Storytelling and the Art of Email Writing.” You can view the slides here, and read the paper here.

Originally published May 11th, 2011 on M+R Research Labs

Steve and Colin got so many great questions on the call that they ran out of time before they could answer them – but they wrote them all down! Read on to see what they think about how long emails should be, common mistakes in story-based appeals, and the pros and cons of authentic but unpolished stories.

Storytelling Q&A with Colin Holtz and Steve Daigneault

Q: Did you cover “pic worth a thousand words” ?

SD: Yes, the right picture can definitely explain in raw emotional terms the reality of a given situation better than words often can. Great pictures that tell an emotionally gut-wrenching story are hard to find in typical nonprofit appeals, many times because nonprofits don’t want to be the one to show the “bad” image. I remember seeing the image of that pelican covered in oil after the BP spill, and my first reaction was, someone needs to just send this embedded in an email, full size, and with a simple link that says, “This can’t ever happen again – give now.” Even though this was basically just an explaining story – a bird covered in oil – it was emotionally charged enough that I believe it could motivate people to do something.

These kinds of images are rare, though. In general I don’t think you can just rely on imagery. Also, its basically impossible to find an image that shows the reader at the center of the solution, which means images should mostly be thought of as tools to help explain what’s happening.

Q: Emails should never be longer than…….?

CH: … it takes to make the strongest argument possible in as concise a fashion as possible. We know that long blocks of text don’t work online and that being pithy counts. But don’t get caught up in strict paragraph or word counts — I’ve seen test results showing that long emails (in some circumstances) actually do better. Just focus on telling the best story you’ve got as well as you can, and as quickly as you can, and that’s the right length.

Q: Do you have recommendations for how to build our staff’s capacity to tell good stories?

SD: One idea, start an email thread – or maybe just have this conversation one on one – and ask them to tell you the last time they shared a story over a meal, or on Facebook, or when going out with friends. Then ask them, “what was that story?” It might take a few moments for them to remember a story, but once they do, you can dig in a little to find out what made that story share-able. This exercise might help them understand better the kind of stories we need to use in email copy. The bar isn’t lower – it’s set just as high or maybe even higher.

Q: How can you create a sense of urgency when you are raising funds for an ongoing need?

SD: It’s always hard to raise money for an ongoing need when there isn’t an emergency or you’re not in the news – especially online where the environment is so focused on the moment. I’d try and set a goal and a specific deadline, and try and have that deadline mean something. It could be the end of a quarter – you see political campaigns do this a lot – or it could be an important milestone.

And as old and tired as it may seem, people respond to thermometers and artificial goals. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a mediocre campaign end on a high note, with the final appeal out-raising the previous 2 or 3 appeals.

Q: If you have a standard story of a person who was in trouble and your org helped them, how do you turn the donor into the hero by saying “Thanks to you”?

CH: This is a classic example of trying to use an “explaining story” to compel a supporter to give. That story can do wonders to demonstrate what your organization does and why they should be trusted with supporter’s money, but we don’t think that kind of story alone makes people donate. It’s in the past, and there’s no unresolved tension in the story. Instead of trying to make the donor the hero of this story, I’d talk about the other people your organization could help if the donor steps up, and point to the past success story as proof of your claim.

Q: Is it critical to identify the subject of the story? (Best stories may pose issues of privacy.)

CH: Helpful, yes; critical, no. It’s great if you can identify the subject of the story because it’s more real and tangible — as the old maxim goes, “show, don’t tell.” But don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good: it’s better to use a (semi-)anonymous story to explain your client’s work than to fall back on wonky policy language or statistical outcomes.

Q: Would same rules for email marketing storytelling apply to Facebook and other social media?

SD: You still need to set a high bar for the story. Just because sharing stories on Facebook is easy doesn’t mean people want to read mediocre stories. I think what’s different is that you’re not necessarily asking people on Facebook or other social networks to do something this very moment. So in my mind, there is a bit more flexibility in the type of story you share. It has to be amazing – but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a story about the donor at the center of the solution.

Q: Is the story more powerful if there are direct quotes from an organization’s beneficiary or donor POV?

CH: Yes. A direct quote from a beneficiary can give life to a story explaining how your organization helps or why a donation to this organization won’t be wasted. But remember, the core of our thesis is that the most powerful stories — in terms of compelling people to donate in email appeals — are ones where the reader is the hero. So the best use of a direct quote often is to add weight to your argument that the reader must act (for example, a quote from an “enemy” saying they’ll go all out to defeat a bill).

Q: What are the most common mistakes that make story emails not as effective as others?

CH: This is the very question we set out to answer in the paper: Why do story emails go wrong? I think the most common mistake is that they fall into the personal story trap, using personal testimonials that aren’t that powerful and expecting them to inspire folks to donate. We talk about how to avoid that in our paper. The 2nd most common mistake is confusing stories that explain with stories that compel — and we’ll have an upcoming blog post about how you can tell the difference.

Q: What’s better in your opinion: a haltingly-written, yet understandable and authentic email story put together by a beneficiary or donor, or else a more polished, professionally-written piece by a professional writer? Do donors and supporters notice or appreciate authenticity?

SD: I’d always go with the less polished but more heart-stopping story. Authenticity absolutely matters – and it’s what will set your organization apart. Most organizations have such a hard time approving copy – and generally have so many hands in the approval process – that you end up with white-washed copy that’s very safe but often times boring and uninspiring.

The powers that be will agree with you that the white-washed copy isn’t as strong but they say there’s nothing that can be done. But one option that I think people in our field don’t use often enough, is to just cancel the send. Trash the email and say it’s not good enough. Start over. That can often help force stakeholders to loosen their grip a bit on copy.